CHAPEL HILL — When Roy Williams arrived at North Carolina as a freshman in 1968, some of his old high school friends were over at N.C. State, and they gave Williams enough of a hard time about attending UNC that he still remembers it 44 years later.
Well its always meant a great deal to me. I mean, Ive gone on record saying it. I struggled with them. I was a freshman in college, some of my old high school buddies that Id played baseball and basketball with were over at State and they gave me enough [grief] for the rest of my life.
And I didnt appreciate it and didnt like it. So Ive always had that feeling about this this is an important game. Its North Carolina against North Carolina State.
You know, every kid grows up and sometimes mom and dad plant seeds about who theyre going to cheer for. You know, and they have an influence. I didnt have that influence. I had my high school coach, [who] thought North Carolina was great. And then some other people put us down any way they could to me and I took offense at that.
And its a childish way to react but it stuck with me and Ive always thought that it was a fantastic rivalry. I was in school here finishing up my time when they won nine in a row when David Thompson was here. Or not here, but when he was over there, I think they beat us nine times in a row. That bothered me.
And so again, during my formative years they were beating us up too much to make me happy.
Thus, Williams never forgot. And so in his mind, the rivalry between North Carolina and N.C. State never faded. Since then, the North Carolina-Duke rivalry has overtaken UNC-N.C. State as the fiercest, most competitive basketball rivalry in the area, if not the country.
But part of the past will come alive tonight at the Smith Center, where the Tar Heels (16-3, 3-1) and Wolfpack (15-5, 4-1) will play (7, ESPN) for more than just pride. The Wolfpack hasn't entered a game against UNC with as good of an ACC record since 2004, but the Tar Heels carried a 2-3 league record into that meeting at the Smith Center.
The last time UNC and N.C. State entered a game this late in the season with conference records as good as they have now came in 1974, when the Tar Heels were 4-0 in the ACC and State 3-0. The Wolfpack had already defeated UNC earlier that season in a Big Four Tournament game that didn't count in the league standings.
When the teams meet tonight, State will attempt to break a 10-game losing streak against the Heels. The Wolfpack last lost 11 consecutive against UNC in the 1930s.
"It would mean a lot," Wolfpack point guard Lorenzo Brown said of a victory against UNC. "For us, and our fans."
Still, N.C. State's recent struggles - and its futility in this series - has caused its rivalry against the Tar Heels to lose some of its luster. Asked how he'd compare the UNC-State rivalry to the one his team shares with Duke, Tar Heels point guard Kendall Marshall paused and smiled.
"State's a great basketball team. It's a team in our state, so with the proximity, it's (definitely) going to be a more hyped-up game for them."
Games against the Wolfpack have always been special to Williams, dating back to his time as a student at UNC. When he left in 1973 with a master's degree, the Wolfpack had defeated the Tar Heels four consecutive times. That streak eventually grew to nine.
Now it's N.C. State that is attempting to break a long run of futility against its old foe. It has been a while since a UNC-State game carried as much significance as the one tonight, and even Williams acknowledged it feels different - maybe like old times - that both teams, instead of one, are at or near the top of the ACC standings.